The Kazakhs were nomads. Yes, dear vegans contemplating travel to Kazakhstan, please read that closely. The implications this has for the national diet don’t become clear until you sit down at a dinner table and realize vegetables aren’t exactly a national obsession.
So the Kazakh people were nomads. Sheep, horse, and camel herders. They traveled with a minimum of cooking implements, and they took ingredients for meals from what they had on hand. Which happened to be (have I mentioned this yet?) sheep, horse, and camel.
Thus mutton and horse are central to national cuisine; camel comes in at a close second. Diary products made from cow/sheep/mare/camel milk are available in every shape and form. But if you are vegan and shy away from any kind of animal product, you are pretty much going to have to eat apples, which are plentiful in Almaty, the ‘birthplace of the apple tree’.
I’m exaggerating. A little. I did have good vegetable-based dishes in Almaty, mostly salads. The vegetables just looked eerily familiar every time they were set before us. I would see them at the breakfast buffet in the morning – a plate of red and green bell pepper slivers, a few julienned carrots, some beets. At lunchtime, I would be served “Green soup” (it was either that, the waitress informed me, or “Red Soup”) with red and green bell pepper slivers, some carrots, and beets floating around. At dinner time, I was not surprised to see red and green bell pepper slivers, carrots, and beets accompanying my beef. (The curt waiting staff had expanded their English vocabulary and would cry out: Beef, Chicken, Lamb to facilitate our choices but most often we would resort to pointing anyway).
I wouldn’t have minded all the meatiness. After all, I’m Polish, and we are, according to stereotype, programmed to be carnivores. There’s a VeggieTales rewrite of the traditional Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” called “The 8 Polish Foods of Christmas” . They are all unpronounceable delicacies starring some form of meat. Lest you be unfamiliar with this wonderful classic (I am fully conscious of the fact that not everybody is as fascinated with vegetables re-enacting Bible stories as I am), let me just quote one verse. Having listened to the Polish narrator mention pierogi (“dough wrapped around meat”), golabki (“cabbage wrapped around meat”), kielbasa (“pretty much just meat”) and others, Bob the Tomato despairingly asks the Polish narrator about the 7th dish: “Let me guess, something in the meat family?”
So I actually felt somewhat at home in KZ – the only problem was, I wasn’t used to such a variety of parts and kinds of animals eaten.
My soul rebelled against eating horse meat. This wasn’t really a problem until the official banquet in our honor (it was supposed to be ‘lunch’, but after the 9th round of speeches and toasts, Uzbekistan dancing, and copious alcoholic consumption, it soon resembled the early morning hours of Polish wedding reception).
There was horse meat galore, in the shape of salads:
a horse thigh served to the oldest male at the table:
And the piece de resistance, the most popular Kazakh dish (boiled horsemeat over boiled pasta) besbarmak, which is served in order of importance and called “five fingers” (the way it’s supposed to be eaten).
I resisted the piece de resistance, in spite of urging on the part of locals. However, I soon found I was expected to partake of a sheep’s head which my unlucky boss, as a guest of honor, had received. Apparently, the boiled parts of the head are to be distributed to subordinates, and each signifies something (ie you give a piece of the ear to your employee who needs to listen to you better). I must be a stellar employee, because I managed to escape without ingesting any part of the sheep’s head.
After about three hours of feasting, toasting, dancing, speechifying, and marriage proposals (some people got carried away, what can I say), the waiters brought out dessert and I heaved a sigh of relief.
However, just like Polish wedding receptions, Kazakh formal dinners don’t just end. The cycle restarts. The air was soon filled with smells of the most delicious kebab, and I looked up from the piece of cake I was discreetly attempting to finish to see a cart on fire being rolled out. The fire soon died down, and the chef began carving:
Meat-filled as it was, the official lunch to which we had been invited was one of the most delicious meals of my life.